Thanksgiving is a busy day in our house.
Lots of people hustling about to prepare way too much food in way too little time.
And someone has to clean the dishes as they stack up creating a small mountain in the sink.
That someone, this year, was me.
I stood at the sink washing and washing pots, pans, baking dishes, plates, you name it – I probably washed it. Stooped over scrubbing away. For hours.
Did I hurt anywhere? Ah, maybe a bit. A bit in the lower back but I mentally waved it off like a gnat buzzing around my face.
Then, after the feast, it was back to sink, to again, scrub plates, silverware, pots and pans. It seemed endless.
I was just trying to do my part.
Two days later, I couldn’t stand up.
I had injured my back by making a rookie mistake – too much stooped over work (stooping has some of the highest stress levels on the spine).
I knew better but I lost track of time, what I was doing, and without the governor of pain, I just kept on washing those dishes.
I felt fine until I sat down the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving to do a breathing exercise that my trumpet teacher had given me. And as I tried to stand up, I had a sharp, stabbing, take- to-you-to-your-knees kind of pain.
I had to sit back down.
And then it started.
I felt the mental and emotional landslide from three years ago when I fell while snow skiing, herniated a disc, and spent the better part of a year putting myself back together, and oh, yeah, gaining about 20lbs of fat too.
At this point, I had a choice.
I could let my emotions carry me where they wanted to go or I could get in the driver’s seat and take control of the thought train.
So, I wedged myself into the driver’s seat.
How to Use Your Mind to Decrease Your Pain
This is where many people argue with me. They believe that the pain they feel comes from some specific tissue or joint or muscle or whatever. Something is injured and that something hurts.
ALL pain is in your head.
Think about that for a minute.
Signals from the injured or diseased or damaged body parts arrive in your brain and your brain decides what to do about it.
Don’t believe me?
What about the “phantom limb” syndrome? This happens when a person loses a limb, partial or whole, to amputation and then will swear to you that the right big toe, now gone, itches like crazy. In fact, I had more than one patient in the hospital actually fall during the night because they had to pee and just got up and tried to walk to the bathroom because they still felt both legs.
Here’s what happens.
The signal runs up your spinal cord into your brain – the thalamus to be exact – and its job is to determine what to do with the info. The thalamus is part of the “lower brain” – the more primitive part. The thalamus decides where this info needs to go and most often it gets sent to the “higher brain” where the info can be evaluated. Is it a threat? Is it dangerous? Have I seen or felt this before? And of course this is all happening in in milliseconds.
You react to whatever the upper brain decides (your cerebral cortex – the thinking part of the brain; executive control center). So, in my case, because this new pain was in the same general area, had a similar quality, and more importantly, was attached to a very difficult and traumatic emotional experience, my lower brain said, “Hey, you just really messed up your back.” To which, my upper brain said, “Oh, hell. I’ve been here before. I know what this is. Not again. Not another year. Not this. I can’t handle this,” and on and on.
This happens with phenomenal speed and below your level of awareness unless you’ve learned otherwise.
So, to counteract this attack, here’s what you do:
What I’ve talked about here applies to musculoskeletal pain and not pain of internal organs or diseases such as certain cancers. That type of pain, although similar and requires mental and emotional energy, is a different subject.
Now, for those of you who like to dig deeper, below is an excellent overview of pain and the central nervous system.